Thursday, October 31, 2013

New York Voices Christmas CD - “Let It Snow"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"New York Voices lives up to its reputation as the most exciting vocal ensemble in current jazz· to collect such quality voices in one group is rare enough, yet the real trick of New York Voices is how well they mesh·" - Boston Herald

"· full of life, teeming with energy and bursting with melody·a thoroughly entertaining experience·"_
- All Music Guide

I know that there are about two months before Christmas as I post this review, but one would hardly know it from the way the retail stores are decorated.  Everywhere I go, it feels like the holidays are imminent.

One of the nicest aspects of this time of year are the new Christmas albums that appear.

A few have grabbed my fancy and I thought I would bring them to your attention in a series of holiday blog features.

Let’s start with the latest from Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge, collectively known as The New York Voices.

In celebration of their 25th anniversary together, The New York Voices released Let It Snow on October 29, 2013 [Five Cent Records FCR-0001].

The selections on offer are listed on the following image of the CD tray plate.

Let It Snow finds New York Voices - Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge - celebrating a host of traditional and sacred holiday classics as well as secular favorites. With the assistance of Grammy Award winning producer and engineer, Elliot Scheiner (Steely Dan, Eagles, Manhattan Transfer, Fleetwood Mac), the quartet has fashioned an album that honors beloved songs, while incorporating sophisticated jazz and swing elements.  Settings vary; a cappella performances mingle with robust arrangements featuring big band and studio orchestra accompaniment.

The result is a diverse program of holiday standards, performed with surprisingly fresh treatments.  The close harmony style that New York Voices embraces is a perfect sound for the holiday season. While the bulk of the arrangements are by founding member and tenor vocalist Damon Meader, additional orchestrators include Don Sebesky, Jorge Calendrelli, Pat Hollenbeck, and Michele Weir.

Let It Snow is a long time in coming.  As Meader notes: "We started adding Christmas tunes to our December concerts many years ago.  At first it was just a handful, but over the years, our holiday repertoire expanded.  In 2005, we were invited to tour with the Boston Pops for a full Christmas season.  This is when our book really took off, and we've been planning to record this CD ever since.  It took awhile, but we finally found the time and opportunity to make it happen!"
The CD starts off with the high impact big band arrangement of "Let It Snow," followed by a pairing of lush ballads, "Christmas Song - Christmas Time is Here." "O, Little Town of Bethlehem" is then given an old school big band treatment, reminiscent of the Count Basie Orchestra sound. A number of a cappella performances are also featured, including "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."  The intimate voices-only settings bring the artful NYV sound into full focus, contrasting effectively with the large ensemble pieces.

Other highlights include a rollicking rendition of "We Three Kings," and a more traditional treatment of J.S. Bach's "Sleepers, Wake!," which serves as a warm diversion from the jazz-based harmonies of the majority of songs.  A moody "ECM-esque" rendition of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" features Peter Eldridge as lead vocalist, surrounded by full orchestra and lush complementary group vocals.  Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Kim Nazarian, are all featured as lead vocalists on "The Merry Medley," a collection of three holiday favorites:  "The Man with the Bag," "I'd Like You for Christmas," and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

"I Wonder As I Wander" was first recorded by NYV in 1991 as part of a "cast of thousands" GRP Christmas Collection.  "We've continued to perform this one through the years, and we've always wanted to re-record this arrangement," says Darmon.  "I added a big band accompaniment, in a somewhat Gil Evans-esque style, which adds to the introspective mood of the tune."

Let It Snow wraps up with a high-energy rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," followed by a serene a cappella rendition of "Silent Night."

The internationally acclaimed vocal group has become renowned for their excellence in jazz and the art of group singing. Like the great jazz vocal groups that have come before, such as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Singers Unlimited and Manhattan Transfer, the foursome of Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge have learned from the best and taken the art form to new levels. Time Out Chicago has said of New York Voices: "We dare say there may be no better way to understand the wit and wink of jazz harmony than via these Voices."

The group has released nine CDs on various labels including GRP, RCA, MCG Jazz, Concord, and Palmetto. The group has also starred on two Grammy award winning albums: Count Basie Orchestra with New York Voices, Live at MCG and Brazilian Dreams (Paquito D'Rivera featuring New York Voices & Claudio Roditi). They've earned wide acclaim for their performances throughout the world at venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the Blue Note (New York and Japan) as well as the opera houses of Vienna and Zurich, as well as the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

In addition to their various college and high school workshops, the New York Voices hold an annual vocal jazz camp at Bowling Green State University every August.  All four members are also active as solo vocalists, and have each released numerous recordings.

You can find out more about The New York Voices as well as order information at their website and order information is also available there and through most online retailers.

Here’s a sampling of the music on the CD.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

John Coltrane – Supremely Loved and Loathed

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Tony Whyton has brilliantly revealed how it has become impossible to know
John Coltrane's A Love Supreme outside notions of race, spirituality, history,
authenticity, and nostalgia. For me, it's like hearing the music for the first
– Krin Gabbard, author of Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and
American Culture

"Smart and engaging, Whyton's study highlights the multiple and ever-changing interpretations of Coltrane's most famous recording. In the process, Beyond a Love Supreme serves as an important corrective to those efforts—however well-meaning—that might limit how we understand jazz and its people."
- David Ake, Jazz pianist and author of Jazz Cultures and Jazz Matters

In Mahayana Buddhism, which is practiced in many forms mainly in Southeast Asia, China and Japan, a Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who has gained entrance into Nirvana [an equivalent of “heaven”], but holds back [i.e.: stays in the world] to help others accomplish the steps necessary to attain it for themselves.

In doing so, the Bodhisattva makes the world a better place for all concerned by exemplifying the state of enlightenment which results from the devolution of the Self.

Although reasoning by analogy is full of pitfalls, one could say that for many Jazz fans, and especially, many tenor and soprano saxophonists, John Coltrane has been the Jazz equivalent of a Bodhisattva for almost a half century since his death in 1967.

Here, however, I must emphasize the word “many,” because there are those in the Jazz world who view John Coltrane as Mara, the Evil One; a sort of loose Buddhist equivalent of the devil.

Nat Hentoff, the distinguished Jazz author and critic explains it this way in his collection of essays entitled Jazz Is [New York: Limelight Editions, 1991]:

“Coltrane, a man of almost unbelievable gentleness made human to us lesser mortals by his very occasional rages. Col­trane, was an authentically spiritual man, but not innocent of car­nal imperatives. Or perhaps more accurately, a man, in his last years, especially but not exclusively consumed by affairs of the spirit. That is, having constructed a personal world view (or view of the cosmos) on a residue of Christianity and an infu­sion of Eastern meditative practices and concerns, Coltrane became a theosophist of jazz.

The music was a way of self-purgation so that he could learn more about himself to the end of making himself and his music part of the unity of all being. He truly believed this, and in this respect, as well as musically, he has been a powerful influence on many musicians since. He considered music to be a healing art, an "uplifting" art.

Yet through most of his most relatively short career (he died at forty), Coltrane divided jazz listeners, creating furiously negative reactions to his work among some. (‘Anti-Jazz’ was one of the epithets frequently cast at him in print.) He was hurt and somewhat bewildered by this reaction, but with monumental stubbornness went on exploring and creat­ing what to many seemed at first to be chaos—self-indulgent, long-winded noise. Some still think that's what it was.

Others believed Coltrane to be a prophet, a musical prophet, heralding an enormous expansion of what it might now be possible to say on an instrument.”

The line of demarcation for mainstream Jazz enthusiasts concerning their acceptance of Coltrane’s work seems to be the changes in his playing that coincided with the recordings he issued on the Impulse! label during the last half-dozen or so years of his career.

Prior to that time, Coltrane’s work on Prestige, Bethlehem and Blue Note, and especially his work as part of the Miles Davis Quintet and Sextet as recorded on Columbia, met with general approval, if not, occasional, outright admiration.

John was a tenor saxophonist who rankled those who preferred the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Lester Young, Don Byas, Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins. They liked their Jazz soloist to have a melodic orientation and not the more harmonic one favored by Coltrane.  And then there was the matter of his sound – harsh, abrasive and grating – to his critics, not to mention the sheer number of notes that John played during his solos which prompted Jazz critic Ira Gitler to describe Coltrane’s style as “sheets of sound.”

In my recollection, one of John’s earliest Impulse! LP’s seemed to really set his critics off – A Love Supreme [CD# 05155-2]. Although Coltrane may have intended the recording to be a liturgical act of expression, his detractors had a field day with it. The recording provoked a storm of controversy that in many ways continues to this day.

At the time of its issuance in 1964, very few gave it the kind of acceptance and understanding contained in the following account from Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:

“The first records in Coltrane's career as a leader were the work of a man who had submerged himself in heroin and alcohol and who had mortgaged his physical health as a result. If, as super­stition and a measure of biological science suggest, people are transformed every seven years, then Coltrane is something like proof positive. Few spiritual breakthroughs have been so hard won, but he had also reinvented himself technically in that time, creating a body of music in which simplicity of materials gen­erates an almost absurd complexity of harmonic and expressive detail. This is quintessentially true of A Love Supreme. Its foun­dations seem almost childishly slight, and yet what one hears is a majestic outpouring of sound, couched in a language that is often brutally violent, replete with split notes, multiphonics and toneless breath noises.”

When A Love Supreme first appeared, the Jazz press, by and large, excoriated it and consigned its fate to some form of eternal damnation. [Does music have a Dante’s Inferno?]

Few realized at the time, that A Love Supreme, Ascension, First Meditations along with the remainder of Coltrane’s Impulse! output were to become a clarion call for future generations of young tenor saxophonists in much the same way that the work of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young influenced the tenorists of the 1940’s and 1950’s.

To modern-day saxophonists such as the late, Michael Brecker, Bob Berg, Bill Evans, Larry Schneider and myriad others around the world, Coltrane became the musical equivalent of a Bodhisattva. John’s modal, scalar and harmonic patterns, lengthy, liberated and laboriously-drawn improvisations, and mastery of multi-rhythmic song structures were their keys to Jazz “enlightenment.” John “spoke" to them and they became his followers.

It seems that A Love Supreme would never cease to illicit strong feelings – pro and con [mostly con].

Thirty years later, while starring out at the night lights of San Francisco from my balcony, the husband of a work colleague that I was meeting for the first time at our flat for dinner asked me what I thought of Coltrane’s playing on it.

When I mentioned that I hadn’t listen to A Love Supreme recently, but that I was planning on purchasing a CD version of it in order to do so [the world had switched from analog to digital], he rushed off to collect something from his jacket which was hanging in the living room and was back in a flash saying: “Here, please take mine. I can’t stand the thing!”

Since Coltrane’s death in 1967, there have been many books written about him and his music. I’ve read a number of them and have especially enjoyed those by Lewis Porter, Eric Nisenson and Brian Priestly.

Each has offered me different angles of acceptance from which to view Coltrane’s music.

Recently, another such work has allowed me a more specific prism in which to understand the music on A Love Supreme.

Published in paperback on June 18, 2013, by the always-Jazz-friendly Oxford University Press, the book is entitled Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album.

Authored by Tony Whyton, who is a Professor of Jazz and Musical Cultures at the University of Salford and the co-editor of the Jazz Research Journal, this “book takes us through Coltrane's creative process and examines A Love Supreme as a cultural artifact, leading us towards a deeper appreciate of jazz as a whole. As Whyton states, ‘Coltrane's music... continues to have currency today and provides people with a way of understanding the past as well as envisaging the future of jazz.’”

The Oxford University Press media release goes on to say:

“Commonly believed to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme has had a lasting influence on our culture. Recorded in 1964, by the 1970s it had sold nearly a half a million copies, an almost unimaginable number for a jazz musician today. Coltrane's free jazz style has become the industry standard, and popular musicians of all genres, like rock star Bono and guitarist Santana, cite A Love Supreme as being an influence on their work.

In BEYOND A LOVE SUPREME: jazz professor Tony Whyton provides us with a fresh, detailed analysis of this legendary, almost mythic album. Whyton discusses the deeply spiritual aspects of the album, the album's most common interpretations, and compares Coltrane's later work to this masterpiece album. He also explains how A Love Supreme challenged many of the traditional assumptions that still permeate jazz culture, such as the oppositions between improvisation and composition, black music and white music, and live performances and studio recordings.”

And this annotation is from the book’s dust jacket:

“Recorded by his quartet in a single session in 1964, A Love Supreme is widely considered John Coltrane's magnum opus and one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. In Beyond A Love Supreme, Tony Whyton explores both the musical 111    complexities of A Love Supreme and the album's seminal importance in jazz ill   history. Marking Coltrane's transition from the bebop and hard bop of his earlier recordings to the free jazz style perfected throughout the rest of his career, the album also embodies the deep spirituality that characterized the final years of his life.

The titles of the four part suite—"Acknowledgment," "Resolution," "Pursuance," and "Psalm"—along with the poem Coltrane composed for inclusion in the liner notes, which he "recites" instrumentally in "Psalm," reflect the religious aspect of the album, a quality that contributes to its mystique and symbolic importance within the canon of major jazz recordings. But Whyton also shows how A Love Supreme challenges many of the traditional, unreflective assumptions that permeate jazz culture — the binary oppositions between improvisation and composition, black music and white music, live performance and studio recording.

He critically examines many of the mythologizing narratives about how the album was conceived and recorded and about what it signifies in terms of the trajectory of Coltrane's personal life. Sifting through the criticism of late Coltrane, Whyton suggests ways of listening to these recordings that go beyond the conventional ideologies of mainstream jazz practice and open the music to a wider range of responses.

Filled with fresh insights into one of the most influential recordings in jazz history, Beyond A Love Supreme is an indispensable resource for jazz scholars, jazz musicians, and fans and aficionados at all levels.”

Totaling a little over 150 pages, Professor’s Whyton’s book is a relatively quick read, but nonetheless, a thought-provoking one.

Not only does it afford a deeper, socio-cultural context in which to view Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, but it also represents another example of how Jazz is becoming more and more, what the late pianist, educator and broadcaster Dr. Billy Taylor and the late, writer and critic Grover Sales once described as “America’s Classical music.”

Put another way, Jazz has evolved to a point where it is researched, studied and reinterpreted almost as often as it is performed.

What better example can there be of this emerging phenomena than Professor’s Whyton reference to Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s 2004 concert of their version of A Love Supreme?

Jazz, the music of spontaneity, forty years after the recording of A Love Supreme, becomes music that is scored [written out], conducted and orchestrated in much the same manner that the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms became canonized in the years following their deaths.

It is so odd to think that a half-century ago, books on the subject of Jazz would barely fill a living room bookcase.

And now it seems there are so many of them that they may very well fill the entire floor of a good-sized research library.

Books like Professor Whyton’s Beyond A Love Supreme will become invaluable to future generations of Jazz fans who were not around to witness and listen to John Coltrane’s music as it was being created.

For those of us who were, Dr. Whyton's work can serve to pull-the-lens back a bit and give us a wider angle from which to appreciate all of John Coltrane’s music.

Beyond a Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album is available through online sellers and you can purchase it directly from Oxford University Press at

Sunday, October 27, 2013

George, Ira and Victor

Victor Feldman on vibes with Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums.

Stay with this one; it's a burner from beginning to end.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ben van den Dungen – Ciao City

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved

“In my career I have recorded numerous albums, but I believe this recording might be the most memorable one for me. The atmosphere was so relaxed and there was nothing to disturb that. I am proud of this rhythm section. With these guys it's simply impossible not to stay focused and be inspired by the music. We have recorded a large amount of music in a small period, so there are quite a lot of tunes on this album, but you know, I just couldn't decide on the selection.”
- Ben van den Dungen

One of the great things about writing a Jazz blog is being introduced to old friends in new contexts.

“Old” in the sense of having heard their music on prior recordings and “new” in the sense of now being given the chance to listen them on their latest CD’s.

Such was the case recently when the Jazz and Worldmusic Agency contacted the editorial staff at JazzProfiles about our interest in a review copy of saxophonist Ben van den Dungen’s latest disc Ciao City.

I was familiar with Ben’s work from his association with Nueva Manteca, a fabulous Latin Jazz group led by pianist Jan Laurenz Hartong . This eight-piece band are a Netherlands-based Latin jazz outfit who produce a highly authentic distillation of Latin music and also embrace traditions such as Arabic, classical, Dutch Antillean and salsa. I’d also heard him on some quintet tracks with trumpeter Rik Mol, one of the more impressive young musicians on the Dutch Jazz scene.

If you love the big, round, full tone on tenor saxophone in the tradition of Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins then you are halfway home with Ben’s sound. And if your into the adventurous harmonics made famous by John Coltrane on both tenor and soprano saxophone, then you are all-the-way-there with Ben who manages to blend all of these together on the “big horn.”

Ben explains these influences this way in the sleeve notes:

“With all my love and appreciation I would like to thank all great musicians for their wonderful music and ideas. They have been - and still are - an enormous inspiration for me. They are with too many to mention, but be sure I carry them all around in my heart and in my music.”

Ben is no pardon-me-while-I-swing Jazz musician; he’s in your face with a big, blustery sound and a very forceful attack.

On Ciao City, he steps out in a quartet setting with a rhythm section of Miguel Rodriquez on piano, Marius Beets on bass and Gijs Dijkhuizen on drums.

Miguel Rodriguez is a name that is new to me, but bassist Marius Beets seems to be everywhere present on Jazz produced in Holland as a musician, producer and sound engineer [he served as the sound engineer on this recording], and Gijs is an up-and-coming drummer who I’ve heard play in a variety of settings, including those involving his brother, tenor saxophonist Sjoerd Dijkhuizen.

The media release accompanied the recording states:

“As often in the music of Ben van den Dungen, the music is made by an amazing combination of personalities that creates fresh music, inspired by the Jazz tradition and played with a lot of energy.”

After playing through the fourteen tracks on Ciao City, the impression that first came to mind was how well paced the music was and how diverse it was in terms of its construction.

The opening title track is an up-tempo burner based around a three-note bass vamp that hammers home with insistency due to the driving beat of Beets and Dijkhuizen. Both Ben and Miguel glide over this swinging pulse before Ben puts the brakes on and delves into an out-of-tempo cadenza to close the piece.

Next up is M&M, a blues that settles into a relaxed groove that features Ben on soprano, a difficult instrument to achieve an acceptable tone on, but one that sounds mellow given his control of its vibrato. Ben and Miguel achieve a John Coltrane-McCoy Tyner type of mood on this track, as well as, on Kenny Dorham’s rarely heard Escapade that features later in the disc.

The third track – The Mohican and The Great Spirit – is not often heard these days, although it was composed by Jazz great, Horace Silver. Played as a 9/8 ostinato [a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice], both Ben and Miguel really shine as they take advantage of the repetitive rhythmic phrase to build intriguing solos. Gijs get to let it out a bit as the band extends the vamp before closing the tune.

Next up is Ben’s Streetpeople, set in a blues-drenched-crawl of a tempo that really shows off Ben’s marvelous skills on soprano saxophone.

Cole Porter’s chord filled So In Love follows and is stylized by Gijs’ faced-paced Latin Jazz beat with the tempo exploding into a fast 4/4 clip for the solos. Both Ben and Miguel blast through the complicated chord progressions with reckless abandon creating an exhilarating, musical rollercoaster ride.

There is so much music going on in Ciao City that it is difficult to realize that at this point, you’ve only listened to five of the fourteen tracks on the CD!

In addition to a beautiful rendering of Thelonious Monk’s Pannonica, which shows off Ben’s saxophone mastery to full advantage, there is the aforementioned performance of Kenny Dorham’s Escapade, five more originals by Ben – The Pimp, Someone Like You, What About That, Don’t Hesitate, On The Flipside and two by Marius Beets, The Captain and Shuffle De Buffle, which can be heard on the video that concludes this piece.

Ben has also made available the first two tracks of the CD as Soundcloud audio-only files and we have included these as well to help give you a full appreciation of the wonderful music on Ben’s Ciao City.

If you are a fan of straight-ahead Jazz, you can’t do much better than the fourteen interestingly arranged and beautifully played tracks on Ben’s new recording.

Order information can be found at, and

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sonny Rollins – The Prestige Years

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved

“Sonny Rollins first recorded for Bob Weinstock's new Prestige label in 1949, when he was not yet 19 years old and at the very beginning of his professional career, although he had already appeared on three recording sessions (one with JJ. Johnson, and two with singer Babs Gonzales). Rollins went on to participate in a total of eighteen sessions for Prestige between 1949 and 1956—formative years in which the saxophonist would make some of his greatest strides as an improviser.”
- Charles Blancq

One of the great things about the boxed set Sonny Rollins- The Complete Prestige Recordings is that a good portion of the sleeve notes are authored by Bob Blumenthal.

So not only does the owner get a ton of brilliant music from tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ earliest recordings, a purchase of the set also brings the observations, comments and insights of a Jazz writer who has been awarded Grammies for the excellence of his insert notes [In 1999 for Coltrane: The Classic Quartet/Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings and 2000 for Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1955-61].

You can read more about Bob’s background and current activities at

As was the case with our earlier posting of Doug Ramsey’s brilliant insert notes to The Complete John Coltrane Prestige Recordings, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is very grateful to Nick Phillips and his team at The Concord Music Group for granting copyright permission to reprint Bob’s writings on these pages. Order information regarding Sonny Rollins- The Complete Prestige Recordings is available at

And, of course, our thanks go out to Bob as well for his continuing generosity in allowing us to represent his work once again on the blog.

© -Bob Blumenthal/The Concord Music Group, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with permission.

Sonny Rollins – The Prestige Years by BOB BLUMENTHAL

““Spontaneous". . ."A music of personal expression". . ."Different every performance". . . 'The sound of surprise."  It's amazing how frequently I catchphrases of jazz are honored only in the breach, how often even ranking stars of the music settle for reliable choices when navigating through the potential minefield of the improvised solo. But when Sonny Rollins plays, the spontaneity, surprise, and freshly-minted personal expression are always present, which is one reason he has been cited more frequently than any of his peers as the greatest living jazz improviser (and hence jazz musician) in the two decades since he emerged from his last sabbatical.

Rollins has deserved the designation of model jazz artist for about twice that long, as the music in this collection indicates. At the age of 25, while he was still working primarily as a sideman, and had only recently returned from an earlier absence, his achievement was already imposing enough to justify the album title Saxophone Colossus. Few of those who had heard his previous Prestige sessions considered the designation mere record-company hyperbole. Rollins, who began as far more than just a promising talent, had been growing by leaps and bounds into one of those rare artists who define a musical epoch. His aggressive virtuosity, searing energy, caustic humor, and boundless imagination were already well documented, and had contributed to the evolved conception of jazz modernism known as "hard bop." Rollins's music would continue to grow in later years, as would his mystique; but by the time his Prestige contract expired at the end of 1956 he was already an acknowledged giant.

Rollins earned his reputation through the music contained on the present seven compact discs, which can be heard as Acts 1 and 2 in one of the longest (and still-running) sagas in jazz history. As such collections go, it is uncommonly comprehensive. While Rollins had made three prior visits to a recording studio before his New Jazz/Prestige debut with trombonist J.J. Johnson in 1949, and actually cut his most important session as a teenager three months later (with Bud Powell on Blue Note), the early Fifties found the tenor saxophonist establishing an exclusive base on Prestige. Over a period of five years, from his first session with Miles Davis through his first 12-inch LP tour de force Work Time, all of Rollins's commercial recording was done for that label. While 1956 would also find him making important studio appearances elsewhere—with Clifford Brown/Max Roach and the succeeding Roach quintet on EmArcy, with Thelonious Monk on Riverside, and on the first of his own Blue Note albums—he still turned out the bulk of his performances for Prestige founder/producer Bob Weinstock.

Despite the music they were creating, these were not the best of times for Rollins or his contemporaries. America had only begun to confront the racism that permeated its society, jazz was still trying to make a case for itself as an art form, and the scourge of heroin addiction among young jazz players added another and often insurmountable obstacle to personal growth. That Rollins could overcome these circumstances testifies to a strength of character equal to the strength of his sound and conception. Even when witnesses report that he was not in the best of physical shape during one or another of his early sessions, Rollins always provided at least some intimations of brilliance. His rich and bellicose tone, the bold way in which he extended and often anticipated a tune's underlying harmonies, his emphatic swing and frequently abstract counter-rhythms, and the astounding continuity he was able to generate with such diverse techniques made Rollins an influence before he had pulled himself together. This is the erratic but invaluable Rollins heard on the first half of this collection. After he had dealt with his personal problems and emerged as a featured sideman with the Brown/Roach quintet at the end of 1955, he was unstoppable.

Rollins enjoyed the luxury of working almost exclusively with jazz giants during his Prestige years — although few of them were as yet recognized as such. A quick glance at the collective personnel of this package indicates the wealth of talent involved, and also that the evolution of an entire musical style is documented here. With Brown, Davis, Kenny Dorham, or Art Farmer on trumpet; John Lewis, Monk, and Horace Silver among the pianists; a roll of drummers including Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Roach, and Art Taylor; and appearances by fellow saxophonists John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, and Charlie Parker, Rollins's Prestige recordings serve as a mini-history of hard bop. This more percussive and blues-centered wing of jazz modernism, which soon came to be known as East Coast style (to differentiate it from the less assertive West Coast variety), made its first appearance on early Miles Davis sessions recorded for Prestige and Blue Note. Certainly Blakey's drumming on the October 1951 Davis date in this collection, and Philly Joe's work on the trumpeter's subsequent January 1953 recordings, are prototypes of hard bop accompaniment, just as the Rollins solos they support helped to define the hard bop approach to the tenor.

These performances document as well the technological and marketing changes in record formats that strongly influenced the music's evolution. The very first sessions were produced for release as 78-rpm singles, yet as early as the late-1951 Davis date the possibility for extended performance offered by the 33-rpm, 10-inch "long-playing" album was being explored. By 1955, the 10-inch discs were already obsolescent, being replaced by 12-inch albums, which contained far more playing time. It was a new era for recorded jazz, and Rollins was one of the era's prophets.

Sonny was well positioned to reach such early eminence, for he grew up in one of the richest environments a young jazz musician could imagine. Theodore Walter Rollins was born in New York City on September 7, 1930; some references have listed the year as 1929 because he had once claimed to be a year older in order to obtain working papers. The Rollins family first lived in an apartment in the heart of Harlem, on 137th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. The Savoy Ballroom was right around the corner, and the Cotton Club was nearby. "I used to walk by both [places] as a kid," he once recalled, "wishing I could go inside. You didn't have to be grown up to go to the Apollo, though, so I went down there at least once a week and caught practically everybody—Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie .... We used to see those guys do a stage show, and then there'd be a movie. Boy, those were the days; go get some candy, see maybe a murder mystery. You'd hear the bands warming up in the background, and then you'd actually see them. You caught a great show."

The movies, and the popular music heard on the radio, also made an impression on the young Rollins, and explain his ongoing fondness for both the staples and the obscurities of Tin Pan Alley. "I'm attracted to the older standards because I listened to them growing up. I remember a lot of them, and was influenced by Hollywood songs, songs from pictures. A lot of these songs I can still relate to," he has said. His family also played a role in shaping his tastes. "My playing calypso is mainly due to my mother coming from the Virgin Islands. I went with her to a lot of calypso dances, and heard many of the songs I play at a fairly early age."

By the time Rollins was 10, his interest in music had been focused: "What made me want to be a musician was seeing a saxophone in a case. It was so beautiful and shiny, I fell in love with the instrument." His fondness for Louis Jordan led Rollins to begin on an alto sax. When his family moved further uptown in the early Forties, to Harlem's Sugar Hill section, the youngster's enthusiasm grew into passion. The new neighborhood was full of established musicians, including his early idol Coleman Hawkins, as well as such like-minded youngsters as Jackie McLean, Art Taylor, and Kenny Drew. The teenage friends would often play together in pickup bands. "For some reason, I was always the leader," Rollins recalls, "although Kenny was the most schooled in terms of classical training.

"We were thoroughly dedicated to playing all through school," Rollins continues. "And as we got older, we got to hang out with a lot of the musicians. I got all kinds of things from a lot of people—the meticu­lous shine on Buddy Tate's shoes when he came out front to solo with Basic was something that registered. We'd also go down to 52nd Street and try to get into the clubs. We'd put eyebrow pencil around our lips and wear big hats pulled over our faces so no one would see how young we were. Charlie Parker was down there, and we pestered Bird a lot, but he was always very nice.

"I first heard Parker when I was 15, on his record 'Ko-Ko.' I was attracted to
him, but wasn't with him completely. At the time there was a rumor that Bird was dead, then Savoy put out 'Now's the Time' and 'Billie's Bounce' and that was all you would hear in Harlem. I began to get the message. At the same time, I was a devotee of Coleman Hawkins—I had an alto, but wanted a tenor so I could be like Coleman. I got my first tenor in 1946, so these influences were intertwined. A few years later, guys in Chicago called me 'the Bird of the tenor.'"

Rollins also acknowledges hearing a lot of other players in this formative period. "There was this older guy in the neighborhood who knew I played sax and asked me, 'Who's the greatest tenor man in the world?' I said Coleman Hawkins, but he said 'No, Lester Young.' So I went out and got my first Lester Young record, 'Afternoon of a Basie-ite,' and started paying attention to Lester. Of course, I also loved Don Byas, Ben Webster, and Georgie Auld.... All of the great tenor players made an impression."

The teenaged Rollins lacked confidence in his playing, and seriously considered pursuing his talents in the visual arts by becoming a cartoonist or painter until he received critical encouragement from several of the period's innovators, including two who would employ the young tenor man on their own Prestige recordings. He met Monk through Lowell Lewis, a trumpet-playing friend and classmate who led a high-school combo with Rollins.

"Lowell and I lived up on the Hill, but went to high school on 116th Street on the East Side. This was the beginning of New York City's efforts to desegregate the schools, so we were sent to Benjamin Franklin High School in an Italian neighborhood, and the situation was tense. Frank Sinatra came to sing at the school after one of the incidents. He was a big star, and an Italian-American, and it made an impression to have him come to a school in an Italian neighborhood and tell the students to settle down. Nat Cole's trio came to the school and played as well around this time." A decade later, Rollins would remember Sinatra's visit when selecting "The House I Live In" (which had been closely associated with the singer) for one of his final Prestige sessions.

"After school, Lewis would go down to Monk's apartment for rehearsals, and he'd bring me along. Monk was using another young tenor player in his band at the time, and Lowell was convinced that I was a better horn player. I learned a lot rehearsing with Monk, trying to learn that music." Indeed, the complex rhythms and harmonies, daring use of space, and idiosyncratic humor that became trademarks of the Rollins style can be traced back to Monk, and can already be heard in embryonic form in his first recorded solos, cut with Babs Gonzalez for Capitol in January and April of 1949, when Rollins was 18.

It was at about this time that he was first heard by Davis. "I used to play in the jam sessions at Minton's. There was a promoter who heard me there who ran Sunday afternoon sessions at the 845 Club in the Bronx. He would get people like Miles, Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, and J.J. to be the featured attractions, then hire younger guys to play intermission. Miles first met me on one of those Sunday sessions, where I was playing with my trio. [Rollins was already working in the tenor-bass-drums format that he would popularize in the late Fifties.] He invited me to work with his band, and those were some of the most memorable playing experiences I had. Miles was an idol of mine, and we seemed to have a lot in common; our styles blended. Encouragement from Miles, Monk, Bud Powell, and Art Blakey finally convinced me not to be so self-deprecating and to try to make it."

The musical odyssey charted in this collection begins with an example of Rollins from this period, his early 1949 session with the sextet known as Jay Jay [sic] Johnson's Boppers. It was the tenorman's fourth visit to a recording studio, and his second with Johnson, who had used him two weeks earlier on a quintet date for Savoy that included Rollins's first two recorded compositions. The Prestige debut contains another early Rollins original, the bop blues "Hilo," and coincidentally includes three-fifths of a future Max Roach quintet, Roach, Sonny, and Kenny Dorham. About the brass giants on hand here, Rollins says: "I knew Kenny from when he moved up on the Hill. We were tight, and used to practice and rehearse together. J.J. had been on my first record date with Babs Gonzalez, but I may have met him earlier at a session."

By 1951 and his first session with Davis, Rollins had begun paying the dues that were all too common during the period. After leaving New York for Chicago to work briefly with the respected but unrecorded drummer Ike Day in late 1949, he was incarcerated for eight months on a drug-related charge in 1950. Rollins was even more intense and rambunctious after his release from prison, and his work with Davis reveals that he was a perfect contrast to the more pensive trumpeter. "Miles always needed a strong, aggressive sax player to play off his style," Rollins notes. Davis was so enthusiastic that he persuaded Weinstock to tape a track featuring Rollins at the end of the session, and, since John Lewis had already left the studio, provided the piano accompaniment. These themeless choruses on the chords of Parker's "Confirmation," ultimately titled "I Know" when released as a 78-rpm single, apparently led the Prestige executive to give the young saxophonist a recording contract.

Another studio appearance with Davis preceded the first official Rollins session in December 1951. While these dates include several intimations that the young tenor player was already something special (how many musicians would have quoted "Well, You Needn't" then, as he does during his chorus on "Out of the Blue"?), Rollins was scuffling at the time, a situation indicated by his reported use of a coat hanger and a length of rope in place of a neck strap on his first session.

"Drugs passed through like a tornado in the early Fifties," he has recalled in frank evaluation. "Guys came back from Korea smoking heroin. It was plentiful, and I was hooked pretty bad, along with everybody else. It was a thing we all went through; some of us came out of it, and some didn't. I did."

The battle was not easily won. He was arrested again in 1952 for parole violation. Out once again and back on the scene in January 1953, Rollins made his third studio appearance with Davis in a sextet that also included Charlie Parker on tenor. This summit meeting proved to be a tension-filled affair that went unreleased until 1956, after Parker's death. Rollins sounds like the most together of the soloists through much of the date, although his actual condition led to a pivotal conversation with Parker.

"I'm sure Bird thought it was because of him that I was using heroin," Rollins recalls, "and he asked me at the session if I was straight, because he knew I was on parole at the time. I had just messed around with another musician before the session, but I lied and told Bird I was straight. At a break, somebody else mentioned that I had gotten high. That's when Bird told me I could be a great musician if I didn't mess around, and that stayed on my mind. He couldn't get off of it, and when he saw all of these young kids hooked, he took it on himself. This motivated me—I wanted to show him that one of his followers got the message. The sad thing was that Bird died while I was in Lexington the second time, so I never got to tell him." His respect for Parker was clear enough at the time, despite suggestions to the contrary after he quoted "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" on both takes of "The Serpent's Tooth." "Miles and I both liked to play that song. The quote really had no particular significance, although I thought later about how it could be taken the wrong way."

Rollins continued to grow as a musical force during 1953 and '54 despite two more years of personal turmoil. His October 1953 recordings with the Modern Jazz Quartet reveal a more mature soloist and composer. A month later, he cut his first session with Monk. More of the rough edges had been planed away on a January 1954 date with Art Farmer, who had approached Rollins about recording after the two had played together at sessions. Among its other features, the Farmer session included the Horace Silver/Percy Heath/Kenny Clarke rhythm section that would go on to make three important sessions for Miles Davis later in 1954. The last of these was the June 29th date on which Rollins came into his own.

Not only was the saxophonist playing on an elevated level on this most famous of his five Prestige sessions with Davis, but the presence of "Airegin," "Oleo," and "Doxy" made Rollins the composer a force to be reckoned with as well. The trumpeter was already an acknowledged star maker at the time, and his inclusion of a sideman's tunes on his recordings was the ultimate seal of approval. "Those tunes had all been written prior to the date," Sonny recalls, "some of them while I was incarcerated. I don't recall playing them on jobs with Miles, though; it was probably a situation where we were in the studio and Miles said 'Got any tunes?'" The arrangements of "Oleo" and "Airegin," which build tension by having pianist Silver lay out for extended stretches, were also highly influential. Rollins, like many later Davis sidemen, cannot recall if this idea was his own or the trumpeter's. "I'll give Miles the benefit of the doubt, since it was his date, but I don't really know who had the idea. When I played with Miles during this period, the piano would often inhibit what we wanted to do, and both of us would ask the pianist to stroll. We had a lot of similar ideas about music."

Musicians and fans were starting to pay attention to Rollins, and Prestige responded in the latter half of 1954 with two 10-inch albums under the saxophonist's name. As commanding as he sounds on Sonny Rollins Quintet (with Dorham and Elmo Hope) and Sonny Rollins (the quartet encounter with Monk), he was still wrestling with his drug habit. By year's end he had checked himself into the federal drug facility in Lexington, Kentucky, motivated by Parker's earlier advice to cure himself once and for all. After four and a half months in Lexington, Rollins returned to Chicago, where he felt that he had experienced important musical growth four years earlier. He took a room at the YMCA, found work as a janitor and as a laborer loading trucks, and used his spare time to practice.

Months passed before he began playing in public. "Then it started," he has recalled, "the real test. Guys coming up to you at sessions and offering you stuff, and your palms sweating; you've seen it in the movies. There I was struggling, working my little day job, and right around the corner from the YMCA where I was living was a record store with my quartet album with Monk in the window! It was tough, but I came through that okay." His practice time was spent "just working on things. I had my loose-leaf notebook—I still have that notebook, in my apartment in New York—and it had various individual things that I wanted to work on. I was always working on something, and I was also learning songs. I remember rehearsing 'There's No Business Like Show Business' in the basement of the T with Booker Little."

Rollins took the majority of 1955 to pull himself together. While in Chicago, he turned down an offer to join the newly formed Miles Davis quintet, which made a place for the then-unknown John Coltrane. In November, he subbed for Harold Land when the Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet visited Chicago; some of their first performances at the Beehive club were taped and released a quarter-century later. When the quintet left town, Rollins was on board as a full-time member, creating one of the most inspired (and sadly short-lived) front-line pairings in jazz history. Act 1 of the Rollins saga had concluded; and Work Time, recorded in New York shortly after he had joined Brown/Roach, brings up the curtain on Act 2.

In little more than a year, Rollins would record six sessions under his own name for Prestige, as well as a final studio appearance under Davis's leadership. This is a truly prodigious output, particularly for an artist who takes so much time to prepare his contemporary releases. "All recording is a traumatic experience for me," Rollins once told Orrin Keepnews; but it was an experience he was more readily willing to undergo after his return from Lexington and Chicago. The demand for product in the dawn of the era of the 12-inch album may explain in part this burst of activity, although the determination of Prestige to stockpile material before Rollins's contract expired may have also played a role. From Rollins's own perspective, he recalls simply wanting to work and make some money after his period of struggle. Whatever the reason, Rollins approached these albums with a mixture of furious energy and intellectual rigor that announced a new creative plateau. Viewed as a group, they form an intriguing pyramid, with the first and last being the most hard-driving and confrontational, the second and fifth capturing Rollins at the head of bands where he appeared nightly as a sideman, and the middle masterpieces Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus revealing more subtlety and an even greater range of expression.

Work Time, from December '55, and Tour de Force, made almost exactly one year later, are the most heated of the efforts. The former has often been identified as one of Rollins's greatest achievements, while the latter features starkly contrasting moods, given the two ballads with Earl Coleman. ("Earl's recordings with Parker put him in an exalted place, in my view. Since Bird did a record with Earl, I wanted to do one too.") What earned the latter album its title, though, were the themeless dashes through the chord changes of "Lover" ("B. Swift") and "Cherokee" ("B. Quick"), as well as the voracious invention of the blues "Ee-ah." "Max and I did want to see how fast we could play," Rollins admits about this last session. "I was young and strong, and able to at least try anything."

Sonny Rollins Plus 4 and Rollins Plays for Bird found the saxophonist fronting the Brown/Roach and Roach quintets, respectively. In each instance, Rollins chose material that was not a part of the regular group repertoire. "I wrote 'Valse Hot' on the road, right after I joined the band, but never performed it in person until after the album came out. The rest of the material was just current pop tunes that I liked or, in the case of the Bird medley, songs that Max and I associated with Parker. I was interested in writing a waltz; the precedent was Fats Waller's 'Jitterbug Waltz,' that was in my mind, and I used the chords from 'Over the Rainbow.' Tent-Up House' was not based on another tune. The title comes from my situation when I wrote it. I was staying in someone's house at the time, and felt pent up because I couldn't practice."

The session with Clifford Brown is one of only two studio encounters between the trumpet giant and Rollins, who had taken part in a Brown/Roach session for EmArcy earlier in the year. It is one of the few albums of his own that the perpetually self-critical Rollins admits to liking. "I like the different moods I got with Clifford on that session. We really sound compatible." He will also express fondness for "The House I Live In" from the Plays for Bird session, although Prestige did not release the track with the other material recorded at the date. "I was never consulted about what would and would not get released," Rollins explains. This track, as well as "Sonny Boy" from the final session, only surfaced in the early Sixties after Rollins mentioned them in a conversation with critic Joe Goldberg, whose subsequent reminder to Weinstock led to their rediscovery.

The Tenor Madness album features Rollins with the Davis band of the time minus its leader, an inspired pairing of undetermined origin. "I'm not sure whose idea it was, to be honest, mine or the record company's. At that time, everybody was hanging out together, and you'd see each other all the time. Groups would be put together for albums without a lot of premeditation. It was a much smaller, tighter world." Whatever the source, the empathy of Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones inspired Rollins to some of his most relaxed and lyrical- work, before John Coltrane was added for an extended performance on a line that Kenny Clarke had recorded ten years earlier under the name "Royal Roost." "I have to plead innocent for taking a composer's credit on 'Tenor Madness,'" Rollins emphasizes. "A lot of record companies wanted to claim publishing rights at the time, and would put your name on a piece and publish it through their company. . . .The same thing happened with 'St. Thomas,' which of course is a traditional song that I heard my mother singing."

"Tenor Madness" presents the only recorded opportunity to hear Rollins and his good friend John Coltrane together, and it points up one significant difference in their outlook: Coltrane was relentlessly serious, to the point of humorlessness, while Rollins had a profound wit that ranged from whimsical innuendo to broad musical pratfalls. One particular exchange epitomizes the distinction so clearly that I have frequently played it for friends who want to hear the difference between the two giants. It takes place during the last four bars of the third chorus of "fours," and the first four bars of the next chorus. Coltrane grows increasingly heated in his turn, laboring over a pet ascending figure; then Rollins responds by juggling the lick and ultimately playing it backwards. "Humor in music is a very subjective thing," Rollins has said. "I feel whether a person has humor should be a natural thing. Because of the humor in my music, people have accused me of not really playing, of just playing around. In fact John told me that about 'Tenor Madness'; he said, 'Aw, man, you were just playing with me.'"

The consensus masterpiece of the Prestige years is Saxophone Colossus, recorded a month after Tenor Madness. Rollins describes it as "very clean for me—I'm a rough player usually," and has admitted that "it caught everybody on a good day." It has the first great Rollins calypso, "St. Thomas"; and another unique original composition, "Strode Rode." ("I might have written that one in Chicago. It was named for a legendary place there called the Strode Hotel, which is where Freddie Webster [an influential but little-recorded trumpet star of the Forties] died. I never even saw the Strode Hotel when I was in Chicago, but I wanted to dedicate something to Freddie Webster.") And it includes the most celebrated performance of Rollins's career, "Blue 7." Several essays have been written about this performance, most notably by Gunther Schuller in The Jazz Review. "I didn't really understand what I was doing until I read Gunther Schuller," Rollins would remark later.

"It's really funny. I didn't know what I was doing. This thing about the thematic approach, I guess it's true, but I had never thought about it; I was just playing it. But I guess it could be analyzed and you could find some sort of theme developing all the way through, which is nice."

Rollins would continue on his way, leaving the analysis to others while he blazed new paths. The Tour de Force session was his last for Prestige. Another two-year cycle of intense recording followed, with the saxophonist preferring to spread his masterpieces among the Blue Note, Contemporary, and Riverside labels rather than signing another exclusive contract. Keepnews, his Riverside producer (and the producer of this collection), sees this as a first attempt to take control of his own career, rather than be at the mercy of contractual demands. Rollins would push the boundaries of what had quickly become hard bop convention further in this period with his use of various piano less rhythm sections, and with his first totally unaccompanied performances. Then, in 1959, he abruptly retired, and was out of sight until a critic came upon him practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge two years later. Upon his return in 1962, he was criticized from one direction for not radically altering his style, then put down from the opposite quarter when he reorganized his band to include former Ornette Coleman sidemen. After a few years he dropped out again, this time to find spiritual fulfillment in Japan and India.

Rollins has been a more constant presence since his return to active playing in 1972, and his performances of the past 20 years have received numerous accolades. His recent working bands cannot compare, however, with the units regularly assembled in the studios for Prestige; and too many of the standards and originals that served him so well on his early recordings now go unplayed. "Actually," he reports, "I still play most of the tunes from Saxophone Colossus, including 'Moritat,' when I'm in Japan, because that was the best-selling jazz saxophone album of all time in Japan, and the fans still want to hear it. And I do hope to play with some of my old friends again. Tommy Flanagan was on a recent album, Falling in Love with Jazz [Milestone 9179]- I'd like to play with Max again, too. We were going to do something, but had problems with the proposed venue. But I would like to play with Max and some of the others, while we're all still around."

One can only hope that such encounters come to pass, and lament that similar reunions did not occur while Blakey, Davis, Monk, and the other departed giants who assisted in the coming of age of Sonny Rollins were still among us. They are all present here on this audio Bildungsroman [generally, something such as a novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education], this document of one musical pilgrim's progress from promise to lasting mastery.” 

As you would imagine, it was almost impossible to select an audio track from the bounty of riches that is the boxed collection Sonny Rollins-The Prestige Years, but in the end we had to go with Sonny's Pent-Up House because it features Brownie on trumpet along with Richie Powell on piano, George Morrow on bass and Max Roach on drums.